Learn more about the 2020-2021 New Jersey County Teachers of the Year:

What is your name & job title?
Michael J. Dunlea, Third Grade Teacher

Do you love your job? What do you love about it?
My job provides me with true joy. For years I was jealous of my wife who worked as a social worker in group homes for children removed from unsafe homes. The impact she was having in the lives of children made me wish I had a job that was making a difference. When I became a teacher I immediately found my calling. My goal is to make children feel valued, special and most importantly that they belong. What I love most is when I can help a child change how they see themselves as a learner. Working for 15 years in the inclusion classroom I have had hundreds of kids who have learning differences and challenges. Providing them with a positive environment they are able to change that internal voice to a can do growth mindset voice. This profession is about helping people find their inner potential when it is often hidden or buried.

Tell me about your students.
My students are honest, funny and inspiring. Many have challenges that they face every day and meet them with courage and tenacity. For 15 of my 17 years I have worked with the inclusion students. My students are just little people who are already leaders changing the world right now. They have an inner kindness and goodness that makes going to school each day mostly a blessing. They are young and boundless. They are often hysterical and make me laugh loudly.

Tell me about a project related to your work that of which you are proud.
The work that I have been doing with our partner class in Memphis is something that I am exceedingly proud of. Bringing together my class of all white students in a highly segregated community to become friends with students in Dr. Collins’ class in Memphis, TN who are all black is something that I believe is making a positive change that will reverberate long after the school year ends. We have partnered and done whole class interactions and projects but then linked one student in each class to become pen pals. These pen pals then spent time all year connecting online and reading to one another. They interviewed each other and wrote biographies. They sent gifts and care packages. Even during COVID we remained connected. True friendships were formed that will hopefully deflect the stereotypes and racism that will inevitably await them. We were featured on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt on Martin Luther King Day.

What is your connection to your union/local association?
I unsuccessfully ran for my local presidency as a non-tenured teacher and lost by 9 votes. I have been serving my local in all sorts of roles including building association representative when I was in Stafford. I served on all the committees such as Superintendent, Curriculum, DEAC, ScIP and COVID reentering committee. At the state level I have served as an NJEA State Delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly for three years. I currently serve on the NJEA State Elections Committee as well as the Burlington County Education Association Executive Committee. I have served on multiple negotiations committees and helped write the NJ State Student Learning Standards for k-2 mathematics and K-12 Science Standards for Ocean County. This year I am also an 2020 NEA Global Fellow with the NEA Foundation. I have served on the NEA STEM application review team for several years.

Why did you choose a career in public education?
I was 37 when I first started teaching. It took becoming a father before I discovered the joy of being around children all day can bring. I was jealous of my social worker wife who as making a profound difference every day working in group homes for children who could not stay with their families. I had been made to feel a deep sense of belonging by several teachers in my life and I wanted desperately to have that satisfaction after each day of work.

Have you had a teacher or educational support professional who inspired you?
Mrs. Finn was my 3rd grade teacher. Quite simply she made me feel like I belonged when deep down I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere else. It was safe in her room to be me. I knew she liked me or she did an incredible job convincing me of that. I had the pleasure of telling her before she died of the impact she had on me and that I had decided to follow in her footsteps. She is in my heart and head everyday whispering to me to make sure every student feels like they are right where they are supposed to be.

If you had to describe public education in one word, what would that be?

Public education is facing many challenges. One is the impact that COVID-19 has had on how we teach and how students learn. What have you learned about how you, your colleagues, and your students adapted to remote instruction?
One lesson that I learned during all the COVID time is that the time to do some deep reflection is now. How can we look at our lessons through a new perspective and see if they can survive COVID. One issue that I have heard a lot of was low engagement. Learning online is different and perhaps the in class lessons were in need of a shine to start with. One powerful lesson is the importance of student autonomy and agency. When they feel in control over their learning and the assignments engagement and outcomes always go up. We can’t lose that when we step back into the classroom. The students’ well being used to be central to my planning but during COVID the family of the student was equally important. The classroom was now the home. What was happening in the home always entered the classroom since the two were the same. Moving forward we need to remember that the students bring that home in with them every day. I will strive to focus on a larger circle.

As a result of George Floyd’s murder, along with other tragedies targeting Black people, more and more people are supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. How has this affected you as an educator, and as a person, and how do you see yourself addressing systemic racism through your work as a teacher?
For a long time I have supported the Black Lives Matter movement. In my classroom we spend the entire year learning how to see others who are different with respect and equality. What has changed for me is a greater conviction to take the action beyond the classroom. My knowledge of the movement and the history of violence against people of color is an area I know I am lacking in. I have made this a priority of my personal development that will also impact my professional development. Currently I am reading So You Want to Talk About Race. I have White Rage as a second in my summer reading line up. I am currently on the NNSTOY Equity Task Force and am helping my district develop a plan for helping teachers to bring this to their classrooms.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you would like to share?
In 2011 I was recognized as the Ocean County Teacher of the Year and was a NJ State Teacher of the Year Finalist. It started me on a path that led to teacher leadership. Over the years I have experienced so many professional learning and development opportunities. Engaging with highly effective and successful educators from around the country inspired me to pursue National Board Certification. One thing always led to another. After 9 years I have become an incredibly different teacher and person and I can thank the county teacher of the year honor as the initial spark that started a fire in me. That fire has seen me in multiple national teacher fellowships and ambassadorships. I have participated as an adviser at the local, county, state and national levels in helping policy makers craft educational policy. Every single experience has impacted what I do in my class and beyond. Being a County Teacher of the Year helped me find my profession, it took me out of my classroom and broadened my horizon. I can without a shred of doubt it helped make me the educator I am today.

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